Location, location, location

Oct 24, 2007

As housing developments sprout across the United States, smart growth proponents have urged communities to cluster developments in concentrated pockets, instead of the more standard and familiar ‘sprawl.’ Cluster developments create a far smaller ‘footprint’ on the environment, affecting a smaller portion of the land area than dispersed houses. The initial motivation for cluster development was to protect open space, farmland, and rural character. Yet few studies exist that empirically demonstrate that such concentrated development patterns are indeed better for the surrounding environment.

Now a study in this month’s Ecological Applications, a journal of the Ecological Society of America, finds that while cluster development is indeed much easier on the surrounding environment, the location of housing developments is key.

Charlotte Gonzalez-Abraham and Volker Radeloff (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and colleagues focused their study of housing patterns and habitat loss on Northern Wisconsin over a 50+ year time period. While the number of houses in the study area increased by 353 percent from 1937 to 1999, the amount of habitat lost was far lower than expected, underscoring the effectiveness of cluster development in minimizing habitat loss.

Supported by federal grants from the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, the researchers determined the environmental impact of cluster development by mapping 27,419 houses from historic aerial photos for five time periods in 17 townships in northern Wisconsin.

“The percentage growth of disturbed land area was much lower than for housing growth; in the most extreme case, a 1658 percent increase in the number of houses resulted in only a 204 percent increase in the disturbed land area,” says Radeloff.

Development in northern Wisconsin was already clustered in 1937 and as new houses were constructed, they were generally placed within the vicinity of existing homes. In contrast, the national trend in the U.S. has been toward more dispersed housing since the 1940s.

Environmental effects begin during housing construction and their impact on wildlife populations and the landscape continues for decades. During housing construction, natural vegetation is removed or disturbed—sparking soil erosion—and habitat is lost and fragmented. Wildlife movement is restricted by roads and fences, bird nests may be abandoned, and non-native species may move into the area.

Gonzalez-Abraham, Radeloff, and colleagues found that in their northern Wisconsin study area habitat loss was greatest (up to 60 percent) in deciduous forests and lowest in wetlands. But they also found that houses were strongly clustered alongside lakeshores. One of their study areas, the Northern Highlands, boasts one of the highest concentrations of kettle lakes in the world, offering appealing recreational and scenic amenities and drawing extensive housing growth.

“People and wildlife are often drawn to the same places and that exacerbates the environmental effects of houses,” notes Radeloff.

Around lakeshores, those effects can include loss of ground-nesting birds, green frogs, wood turtles, and loss of habitat for fish as lakeshore residents clear away aquatic vegetation and woody debris. Also, the value of lakes as a natural amenity diminishes when shores are too densely developed, a concern of citizens and land use planners in northern Wisconsin.

Clustering housing developments clearly help lessen damage to the surrounding environment and to plants and animals say the authors. But the question of where houses are placed in the landscape is crucial.

“Some areas are going to be more important to avoid than others because of their conservation value,” says Radeloff. “High density development in areas such as lakeshores means degrading habitat we prize for its scenic and recreational value. In order for clustered development to reduce the impacts of housing developments, clusters must be located away from sensitive areas.”

Source: Ecological Society of America

Explore further: Bitter coffee today? Try changing the colour of your cup

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New digs for the spadefoot toad

Nov 18, 2014

A plump Eastern spadefoot toad sits placidly in a patch of meadow on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Nearby, researchers Rachel Jania and Bryan Windmiller are house hunting for it, trying to figure out if the meadow might make a ...

House fly sex may reveal one key to controlling them

Nov 18, 2014

The quest of University of Houston professor Richard Meisel to understand how and why males and females differ may one day lead to a more effective means of pest control - namely, the pesky house fly.

Captive rhinos exposed to urban rumbles

Oct 31, 2014

The soundtrack to a wild rhinoceros's life is wind passing through the savannah grass, birds chirping, and distant animals moving across the plains. But a rhinoceros in a zoo listens to children screaming, cars passing, and ...

Nestling birds struggle in noisy environments

Oct 29, 2014

Unable to fly, nestling birds depend on their parents for both food and protection: vocal communication between parents and offspring helps young birds to determine when they should beg for food and when they should crouch ...

Is the outcome of evolution predictable?

Oct 28, 2014

If one would rewind the tape of life, would evolution result in the same outcome? The Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould came up with this famous thought experiment. He suggested that evolution would not repeat ...

Recommended for you

James Watson's Nobel Prize to be auctioned

19 hours ago

Missed the chance to bid on Francis Crick's Nobel Prize when it was auctioned off last year for $2.27 million? No worries, you'll have another chance to own a piece of science history on Dec. 4, when James D. Watson's 1962 ...

Engineers develop gift guide for parents

Nov 21, 2014

Faculty and staff in Purdue University's College of Engineering have come up with a holiday gift guide that can help engage children in engineering concepts.

Former Brown dean whose group won Nobel Prize dies

Nov 20, 2014

David Greer, a doctor who co-founded a group that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for working to prevent nuclear war and who helped transform the medical school at Brown University, has died. He was 89.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.